Monday, October 5th, 2020

The Wisdom of Waugh: Quotations for Our Troubled Times

In 1938, Evelyn Waugh went to Mexico; the trip resulted in a book: Robbery Under Law: the Mexican Object-Lesson. Critics thought little of it at the time of its publication, and few people read it today. To be sure, here is not the place to sort through the biases of critics. Because, critics aside, the book contains a number wise observations worth sharing.[1]

Politics, everywhere destructive, have here dried up the place, frozen it, cracked it and powdered it to dust. Is civilization, like a leper, beginning to rot at its extremities? In the sixteenth century human life was disordered and talent stifled by the obsession of theology; today we are plague-stricken by politics. It is a fact; distressing for us, dull for our descendants, but inescapable. . . . The succeeding pages are note on anarchy (721).

By politics Waugh cannot mean simply the phenomenon of public life taken as a whole. It seems likely he means the word in much the same way we might mean it: the whole distressing process and apparatus of law and policy, and (hardly inseparable from it) the media which purports to communicate its activity. It calls to mind the description of Rex Mottram in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.[2]

That is the desiccating effect of politics: when it pretends to be the whole; when it becomes a single, overly-developed faculty. It is indeed what Luther and his company did in the sixteenth century—that is, they gave way to the all-consuming and all-forgetting fixation upon the question of personal salvation (what Waugh seems to mean by ‘the obsession of theology’.) Disorder and stifled talent, indeed. Perhaps Rex Mottram can be considered Waugh’s portrait of the entirely political man.

But we can see why a purely political conception of the human good—and why acting only on the level of politics—is impossible:

Man is by nature an exile, haunted, even at the height of his prosperity, by nostalgia for Eden; individually and collectively he is always in search of an oppressor who will take responsibility for his ills. The Treaty of Versailles, Sanctions, Jews, Bolshevists, Bankers, the Colour Bar—anything will do so long as he can focus on it his sense of grievance and convince himself that his own inadequacy is due to some exterior cause. It requires neither great oratory nor astute conspiracy to inflame a group with a sense of persecution; a hint is enough; and once a grievance is aroused there is no place for figures or arguments (794).

In context, Waugh is commenting on the socialist agitation that preceded the takeover of foreign oil interests. (He will comment about persecution later, but of a different kind altogether.) But the point is profoundly theological, and accounts for much of the human experience. In a word, it is the drama of sin. And at the root of all political upheaval is sin—nay, usually a battery of sins. Here, Waugh reminds us that sound human choice does well to resist the temptation of blame. Man will inevitably miss the good if he does not arrest his dangerous tendency to blame and agitate against. Any political movement or system which takes its beginning from this temptation, therefore, is simply a return to the first sin of our first parents. And that always leads to a dead-end.

On the contrary,

It is a common complaint against Catholics that they intrude their religion into every discussion, postulating a ‘Church Question’ in matters which seem to have no theological connexion. This is, in a way, true; the Catholic’s life is bounded and directed by his creed at every turn and reminders of this fact may well prove tedious to his protestant or agnostic neighbors (865).

Yes, the Catholic’s life is ‘bounded and directed:’ that is what makes the Faith so furiously distrusted by the world, which wants no bounds and no direction. But the Catholic should hardly be self-conscious about the matter: for it is his strength. To the degree that he or she is striving to be faithful, every Catholic man, woman, and child can say truly, ‘My life hangs together; and while I am far from perfect, my life under the influence of the grace of my religion entails a beautiful and powerful whole.’

Waugh goes on in a similar vein:

It is a faith which, within its structure, allows of measureless diversity and this is a fact which those outside it find difficult to realise; the spacious wisdom of St Thomas More, the anxiety about liturgical colours of the convert spinster, the final panic of the gangster calling for the sacraments in the condemned cell, the indignation of the Irish priest contemplating the spread of mixed bathing in his parish, the ingenious proofs of the Parisian æsthete that Rimbaud was at heart a religious poet . . . they are all part of the same thing (ibid.)

‘They are all part of the same thing.’—A seemingly raucous thing at times, but one thing nonetheless. The Catholic is heir to all that, because Christ has come for all of it.

But for the purpose of any fruitful discussion the politicians know that the religion of the country is Catholic; and it is in direct conflict with the merciless, fanatical atheism—an atheism that at the moment adopts Marxist language, just as in earlier generations it used Liberal language, but which antedates either; the atheism of the impenitent thief at the crucifixion (ibid).

Once again, the theological ground beneath a political observation. Atheism, chameleon-like, adopts this or that language, language which indeed changes with the times; but it is atheism all the same. And, to jump to the last part of Waugh’s observation, atheism has always entailed something profoundly personal: for the atheism that has been echoing down the ages was the atheism of a man who came face-to-face with the Son of Man, and rejected Him. That is the deepest way to understand the disorders of the day.

But Christ continues to extend the grace of his Passion, and this through the instrumentation of His priests.—Which is why reform will always be a question regarding clerical life.

Seminaries are absolutely forbidden everywhere; this law knows no extenuation and the police are active in searching for and confiscating any house where theological instruction is given. A large seminary has been established in Texas and this has supplied many priests in recent years, but, as well as this, seminaries do exist secretly in most of the dioceses. The lot of the students is miserable . . . they live in conditions of genuine privation. In spite of all this there is no shortage of applicants. Persecution is already having its normal result of producing a priesthood of intense devotion (893-894).


[1] The quotations which follow are indicated by page numbers from: Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writings, Everyman’s Library: Alfred Knopf, 2003.

[2] Book II, chapter 2.